|Korea's foward Son Heung-min, right, vies for the ball with Iran's defender Sadegh Moharrami during the 2022 Qatar World Cup Asian Qualifiers football match between Iran and Korea at the Azadi Sports Complex in the capital Tehran, Oct. 12. AFP-Yonhap|
Son Heung-min could have been the hero again.
Son, South Korean captain and Tottenham Hotspur star, scored in his second consecutive World Cup qualifying match Tuesday evening in Tehran.
His 48th-minute goal at Azadi Stadium gave South Korea a 1-0 lead over the favored Iran in their Group A match in the final Asian qualification round for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Last Thursday, Son had scored the go-ahead goal in the 89th minute for a 2-1 victory over Syria at home. And for about half an hour at Azadi, a place where South Korea had never won before, it appeared as though Son's goal would stand as the winner for the Taeguk Warriors. South Korea even caught a lucky break when Saeid Ezatolahi's right-footed shot rang off the left goal post in the 67th minute.
Ultimately, it wasn't meant to be, as Alireza Jahanbakhsh headed in the equalizer in the 76th minute. Iran hit the goal post again two minutes later, and South Korean substitute Na Sang-ho missed out on a glorious opportunity in the dying seconds before the teams settled for a 1-1 draw.
Despite doing his part and some more, Son apologized to fans in South Korea for not delivering a win. However, Son also said the match was a good learning experience for the team.
"I think we learned a lot about ourselves playing with a lead," Son said. "We got into some tough situations and we tried hard to overcome those challenges. Iran aren't a pushover, especially at home, and I am proud of my teammates for battling until the end."
South Korea now have three draws and five losses at Azadi Stadium. The Red Devils have been outscored 11-4 in those eight matches, and Son became just the third South Korean to have scored in Tehran.
Lee Young-moo had both South Korean goals in a 2-2 draw against Iran in a World Cup qualifier in November 1977.
It took more than three decades before another South Korean found the back of the net at Azadi, with Park Ji-sung netting the equalizer in a 1-1 draw in February 2009, also a World Cup qualifying match.
|Korea's players celebrate their opening goal during the 2022 Qatar World Cup Asian Qualifiers football match between Iran and Korea at the Azadi Sports Complex in the capital Tehran, Oct. 12. AFP-Yonhap|
More than a dozen years later, Son put himself in that company with his 29th goal in his 94th international appearance.
Son's goal came on South Korea's first shot on target. The team attempted eight shots in the first half, with none hitting the net.
Though South Korea failed to protect the lead, this has been a particularly gratifying tour of international duty for Son on a more personal level.
In September, Son was shut down by Iraq in a scoreless draw to open the final qualification round. Son then suffered a right calf strain that sidelined him for the next match against Lebanon. The injury also cost Son some time with the Spurs when he returned to London.
Son eventually shook off the effects of his injury and was named to the Premier League's Team of the Week just before joining the national team last Tuesday. The momentum for Son carried over from his Premier League action to international play, as he scored in back-to-back matches for the first time since the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
Son had recently faced some criticism for deferring too much to his teammates in international play, and for not fully showcasing the kind of skills that saw him emerge as one of the Premier League's top scorers.
However, during the last two matches Son certainly hasn't been shy around the net and has given credit to his teammates for helping him alter his approach.
"The guys have been trying to set up chances for me and to make my life easy on the field," Son said. "I got a perfect pass (from midfielder Lee Jae-sung) for the goal today."
The return match against Iran will be in South Korea on March 24 next year. Son said the hard-fought draw will serve as a good boost to the team's collective confidence moving forward.
"Just as playing in Iran is difficult for us, I think they will find playing in Korea challenging," Son said. "We're going to try to return our fans' love and support with a victory." (Yonhap)